PORTLAND, Maine — Years after officials launched an investigation into baby eel poaching on the East Coast, the first of several men to plead guilty to participating in the wildlife trafficking ring was sentenced last week in a federal courtroom in Maine.

Michael Bryant, 40, a former Baileyville resident who now lives in West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, is one of more than a dozen men who the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says poached thousands of pounds of the baby eels, also known as elvers or “glass” eels, from 2011 through 2014. Since 2011, elvers on average have fetched around $1,500 per pound for fishermen, and netted more than $4 million total for the 12 convicted poachers who have pleaded guilty to federal charges in South Carolina, Virginia and Maine.

Maine found itself at the center of a criminal enterprise that illegally netted elvers along the Atlantic seaboard, where most states ban their harvesting, and then shipped the eels overseas to feed East Asia’s voracious seafood appetite, according to investigators.

Bryant and other poachers benefitted from a combination of environmental, economic and regulatory factors earlier this decade that created an unexpected boon for elver fishermen in Maine, where the vast majority of the country’s legal elver harvest occurs. Maine, one of only two states with legal elver fisheries, has approximately 1,000 licensed elver fishermen who over the past seven years have caught 81,000 pounds of elvers valued at more than $126 million. South Carolina, the other state, issues only 10 licenses each year and has much smaller harvests.

Last October, Bryant was one of seven men who pleaded guilty in federal court in Maine to trafficking in poached elvers. According court documents, Bryant did not have a fishing license but caught 207 pounds of elvers in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia over four consecutive springs, from 2011 through 2014. He sold them to unscrupulous dealers or middlemen, with roughly half his catch being funneled through Maine, for an average of $1,600 per pound, netting a total of $331,084, according to authorities.

On Wednesday, Judge Jon Levy sentenced Bryant to serve three years of probation and to pay $45,000 in restitution and a $5,000 fine. The sentence does not include prison time, but the probation includes nine months of home confinement and the condition that Bryant forgo all types of fishing.

Bryant had one terse remark when, after the hearing, he was asked to comment on his sentence.

“Don’t poach eels,” he told a reporter.

Glass eel gold rush

American elver prices spiked with a surge demand in 2011, which was followed by mild winter weather in the next two years that led to large numbers of elvers along the Atlantic coast, where they migrate upstream from the ocean to freshwater each spring.

At the time, Maine had fairly lax restrictions on elver catches, despite concerns about declining wild eel populations, making the state fishery an easy target for poachers looking to sell elvers caught elsewhere.

Over the past several years, demand for eels in Asia, and especially in China’s expanding economy, has climbed to unprecedented heights, while wild eel populations in Japan and Europe have declined. As a result, seafood dealers have relied more on American fishermen to satisfy Asian demand for eels, which have never been bred successfully in captivity.

Maine fishermen were already expecting good prices in early 2011 when, 11 days before the season was due to start, a massive undersea earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. The resulting tsunami destroyed not only the Fukushima nuclear power plant but also the area’s low-lying aquaculture ponds, where millions of wild-caught eels were wiped out.

Demand for Maine elvers soared and the gold rush was on. Fishermen averaged nearly $900 per pound that year, nearly five times their average pay in 2010. In 2012, the average price doubled again to more than $1,800 per pound, with prices escalating to $2,600 per pound by the end of the season. Prices have wavered since then, from less than $1,000 per pound in 2014 to more than $2,000 the following year but still remain well above pre-2011 levels.

Operation Broken Glass

The vast majority of Maine fishermen have operated legally, with many buying brand new trucks or even houses with money made from their 10-week elver income. But before strict new controls to establish daily electronic records of Maine’s elver catches and financial transactions were implemented in 2014, it was relatively easy to catch elvers outside Maine and then bring them into the state to sell. Now that each licensed elver fisherman in Maine has a closely monitored limit on how much he or she can catch, it reduces the incentive to sell elvers poached from outside the state.

But before 2014, when there were no statewide or individual catch limits in Maine, licensed elver fishermen could sell as many elvers as they could get their hands on, which encouraged many to pass off elvers caught by someone else as their own. And many dealers before 2013 operated on a cash-only basis, making transactions hard to trace and, for the IRS, difficult to tax. Many elver buyers openly carried firearms on their hips to discourage anyone from trying to take bags of high-denomination bills that they kept handy to pay fishermen.

Some Maine fishermen were busted for underreporting their legitimate elver income by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bryant and others poachers stung in Operation Broken Glass — a reference to the “glass” nickname of the thin translucent eels — focused their primary efforts on concealing their catch altogether, or at least where they got it, rather than the money they made.

Some of the conspirators had valid elver licenses issued in Maine or South Carolina that they hoped would give them cover for possessing elvers. Several even had adult eel fishing licenses issued in Florida, which does not prohibit elver fishing, but, according to federal officials, “the eels’ migration patterns mean that there are vanishingly few elvers to be harvested” in Florida, where “in reality there is no viable commercial elver fishery.”

The accused

One of the traffickers who had a Florida license was Portland seafood dealer Yarann Im. Im, 35, has pled guilty to buying and exporting $540,000 worth of elvers he knew were illegally harvested in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Virginia in 2013 and 2014. At least one of the transactions “took place at a home in Lowell, Massachusetts, where Im maintained several tanks for holding elvers,” even though possession of elvers in Massachusetts is illegal, court documents indicate.

According to prosecutors, a man Im bought poached elvers from was an undercover officer with the federal National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Five other men have pleaded guilty in federal court in Maine to illegally trafficking in elvers over the same two-year period: Mark Green, 50, and Thomas Reno, 43, both of West Bath; John Pinkham, 49, of Bath; George Anestis, 44, of Boxborough, Massachusetts; and seafood dealer Thomas Choi, 76, of Henderson, Maryland. The value of the poached elvers each man knowingly trafficked in range from $110,000 for Reno to $1.26 million for Choi.

The five men plus Im are scheduled to be sentenced in Portland in early September.

So far, a total of 12 men have pleaded guilty to federal charges in three states, including three in South Carolina and two more — one of whom is Waldoboro resident Richard Austin — in Virginia.

Another two men have been indicted in Maine but have pleaded not guilty. One of these men is Woolwich resident Bill Sheldon, 71, who has a fondness for fur coats and was described in a 2013 Buzzfeed article as Maine’s “elver-dealing kingpin.” In 2012, when the total value of the statewide harvest was $40 million, Sheldon bought and sold $12 million worth of elvers, Buzzfeed reported.

Sheldon has consistently declined to comment about the charges filed against him or others targeted in the federal sting operation, but in an interview with the BDN last year he said fishing regulators should increase the annual statewide catch limit for elvers in Maine, which in recent years has hovered around 9,500 pounds.

“It’s ripe for expansion,” Sheldon said in 2016. “The fishery is here to stay because it has been managed effectively.”

BDN Portland reporter Jake Bleiberg contributed to this story.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....